B’nai Mitzvah | Local

Alexis Sokoloff: Local Bat Mitzvah celebrant rises above special needs

Alexis Sokoloff holds the Torah at her Bat Mitzvah ceremony (Courtesy Gwen Sokolof)

Fourteen-year-old Alexis Sokoloff smiles as she recalls her Bat Mitzvah on June 9. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” she told the AJP. “I really love learning Hebrew.”

Sokoloff was born with Down syndrome, but with the support of her parents, Gwen and Mitchell Sokoloff, and her younger sister, Rebecka, she’s thrived — and been fully engaged with Judaism.

This year she put together a Power Point presentation with her special education teacher, explaining her disability to her eighth grade peers at Orange Grove Middle School. Having Down syndrome means “Alexis was born with an extra chromosome,” says Gwen, noting that Alexis has always been mainstreamed. “She can learn. It just takes her longer. Her disability affects a lot of her physical and developmental growth.”

The Sokoloffs moved from Portland, Ore., to Tucson four years ago. Their Portland synagogue was “trailblazing,” willing to try preparing teens with disabilities for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, says Gwen. “Alexis and I were going to become Bat Mitzvahs together,” but their Portland rabbi told her, “‘Absolutely not. It’s her day.’ Alexis far surpassed me in learning Hebrew,” says Gwen. “I’ve decided my best effort is to plan my daughters’ Bat Mitzvahs.” Rebecka will have hers on May 11, 2013.

Three years ago, the Sokoloffs attended the annual synagogue open house at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. “We made a real connection with Rabbi [Thomas] Louchheim and Cantor [Janece] Cohen of Congregation Or Chadash,” who had started training teens with special needs for B’nai Mitzvah.

Sokoloff attended Hebrew classes with Melissa Truelove, who was an Or Chadash religious school teacher and B’nai Mitzvah tutor, for several years. She delved into preparation for her Bat Mitzvah last year. “Alexis was an extreme pleasure to work with,” says Truelove. “She was extremely motivated, enthusiastic and probably the most dedicated student I’ve worked with. It was an honor to work with her and participate in her [Bat Mitzvah] service. Looking back years from now, I’m sure I’ll say this was one of the pinnacles of my teaching career.”

And the feeling seems to be mutual. Sokoloff “loved going for her Bat Mitzvah training,” says her mother. “She always wanted to go.” The recent Bat Mitzvah says that working with Melissa and “learning my prayers was fun.”

The Sokoloff family follows Jewish practices such as lighting Shabbat candles and attending services. “I like Shabbat,” says Sokoloff, adding that she especially enjoys saying the candlelighting blessing as a family.

Sokoloff will help her sister prepare for her Bat Mitzvah, says Gwen, and will participate in the service on May 11. Meanwhile, Alexis says “I’m super-excited” about starting ninth grade at Catalina Foothills High School. Sokoloff loves music and is a huge sports fan, notes her mother, adding that Alexis will swim in the Special Olympics in September. Sokoloff also loves knitting; she made around 10 kippot for family members for her Bat Mitzvah. She intends to continue studying Hebrew at Or Chadash.

“I’ve been very impressed and very proud of Alexis,” says Gwen. At her Bat Mitzvah “she loved being the center of attention. She’s usually very shy but she wasn’t that day.” Flashing another smile, her daughter concurs.